Search engines are constantly growing more sophisticated and increasingly focused on quality. This shift has changed the role keywords play in SEO. Keyword optimization remains an important component for ranking in search engine results, but is no longer the be-all and end-all of search engine optimization.

Keyword optimization: From leading factor to supporting role

As we’ve reported previously, data shows the importance of keywords has declined. What’s more, websites that rely on haphazardly inserting keywords into online content have found themselves penalized by search engines, sometimes even banned from showing up on search engine results pages at all.

This begs the question: How can you balance keyword optimization with quality-focused SEO practices?

Use the following search engine optimization tips to maximize keyword usage while ensuring quality remains a cornerstone of your strategy.

Allow searcher intent and topicality to guide keyword usage

Website content, and the way in which it’s written, is how search engines determine what appears on SERPs. You should:

  • Conduct basic keyword research.
  • Create a list of core terms related to your business.
  • Calibrate each keyword to include lengthier, more focused long tail keywords.

Keep searcher intent in mind when selecting long tail keywords to implement, as content written with a clear focus will be both more engaging and likely to be crawled and indexed by search engines.

Do not be afraid to drill deeper into a single topic through multiple pieces of content. By focusing on one topic at a time, you can include more targeted long tail keywords that may not be among your core keywords.

Various experts, including those at Search Engine Land, have made the case that topical optimization is now more important than keyword optimization for SEO. Essentially, it’s more beneficial to create content regarding all facets of a topic than to produce a single piece of content about a topic, include numerous keywords, and move on.

Utilize keywords strategically

Where and how you use keywords may be equally important as what they are in the first place.

As illustrated by Moz, you should:

  • Insert keywords into titles, headlines and primary content areas, such as the opening line of a paragraph.
  • Use your most important keywords at a higher frequency so search engines will rank you for them.
  • Group like-minded words and phrases together, or link them through HTML elements such as a bulleted list, to demonstrate relevance to search engines.

Keep in mind, however, that using too many keywords in a single piece of content can lead to search engines marking it as spam. For the most part, you can use common sense to determine an appropriate rate for keyword usage. In addition to including targeted keywords in titles and headlines, a solid guiding principle is implementing keywords two to three times throughout the body of your content.

“Use keywords 2-3x throughout the body of your content.”

Ensure content meets quality benchmarks

Making sure content as a whole is high quality means moving beyond sales pitches and common industry knowledge to offer valuable, relevant information. Best practices include:

  • Providing information that would be valuable to potential customers at all stages of the buyer’s journey.
  • Offering unique angles or takeaways in content to set yourself apart from your competitors.
  • Referencing trusted sources and other pieces of content that have been highly shared.

In short, provide the kind of information you yourself would be interested in reading if you were a visitor seeking out content on a specific topic.

Searchmetrics has spotlighted certain criteria that correspond to quality and higher rankings. This means taking into account whether related search terms are included when discussing a topic, as well as providing more in-depth content that may require lengthier posts. You should also include relevant images and videos to make the content more attractive to search engines. Finally, while content should be engaging and substantive, it should also be easy to read and understand.

The days of keyword stuffing are done, and have been for quite some time. The best way to find the balance between keyword optimization and quality-focused SEO practices is realizing quality is king, and keywords should exist to support and enhance relevant, valuable content.

Eric Wendt is a writer and editor at Brafton. He discovered his love of words after realizing he was terrible at math. If he's not updating his Tumblr with poetry he's too embarrassed to share, there's a good chance he's out in search of the perfect pale ale.